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Archive for March, 2021

Biden Administration Searches for First Permanent ATF Director Since 2015

By Steve Neavling

President Biden may soon pick a nominee to lead the ATF, which has been without a permanent director since 2015 as the nation continues to grapple with mass shootings. 

The New York Times reports that Biden’s administration is interviewing potential candidates, and NBC News says the president has a “shortlist” of final candidates.

“The administration is going to revitalize A.T.F. and ensure that our guns laws are vigorously enforced,” Michael Gwin, a Biden spokesman, told The New York Times.

As vice president, Biden recommended in 2013 that President Obama pick a Senate-confirmed ATF director. Obama followed through with the confirmation of B. Todd Jones in 2013, but Jones resigned in 2015, and the agency has been without a permanent director since. 

The current acting director, appointed by President Trump, is Regina Lombardo. 

Picking a permanent director is among the Biden administration’s priorities, spokesman Michael Gwin told NBC News in a statement. 

“President Biden is committed to reducing gun violence both, through the policies he pursues and the personnel he places in key positions at agencies like ATF,” Gwin said. “The Administration is going to revitalize ATF and ensure that our guns laws are vigorously enforced so we can keep illegal firearms off our streets and save lives.” 

No candidates have been identified. 

Border Patrol Agent Honored During Procession in South California

Alejandro Flores-Bañuelos (courtesy of Border Patrol)

By Steve Neavling

A Border Patrol agent killed last week while trying to help a motorist in Southern California was honored during a procession through Coachella Valley on Wednesday.

Law enforcement officials stood on overpasses as the procession passed through Interstate 10. 

Alejandro Flores-Bañuelos, 35, was called to a report of a collision on state Route 86 near Salton City at about 4:20 p.m. on March 15. When he arrived, he began helping a 75-year-old woman whose car had become disabled in the road during a dust storm. A car stuck both the agent and the woman’s car. Flores-Bañuelos, who was assigned to the Indio Station, was pronounced dead at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley. 

Flores-Bañuelos left behind a wife and three children. 

Before joining Border Patrol, Flores Bañuelos served in the U.S. Marine Corps. 

A GoFundMe campaign has so far raised more than $85,500 for Flores Bañuelos’ family.

Border Patrol Agent Arrested, Accused of Pointing Gun at Man During Fight

Border Patrol Agent Roman Rodriguez Jr.

By Steve Neavling

A Border Patrol agent accused of pointing a gun at a man during a fight outside a bar in Laredo, Texas, has been arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. 

Roman Rodriguez Jr., 33,  faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, The Laredo Morning Times reports.

Laredo police responded to reports of shots fired near a nightclub on Feb. 26. Several people were fighting when police arrived. 

Police said Rodriguez pointed a gun at one of the men involved in the altercation. But it’s not yet clear whether he fired the gun. 

“After canvassing the empty field, officers were able to recover a semiautomatic handgun and seized it as evidence,” police said in a statement. “Officers confirmed that a shot was fired during the altercation.”

In a statement, CBP said Rodriguez was off duty during the altercation. 

“CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe,” Border Patrol said in a statement. 

Former DHS Secretary Chad Wolf Launches New Consulting firm

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

By Steve Neavling

Former Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf is starting a new consulting firm with three other former senior officials. 

The firm, Wolf Global Advisors, will be tasked with advising companies, NGOs and government agencies on homeland and national security issues, Politico reports.

Joining Wolf are former acting chief of staff Scott Erickson, former deputy chief of staff Tyler Houlton and legislative affairs director Beth Spivey.

“During my time at DHS, I came to know and came to realize that a number of organizations, whether they’re companies or non-profits really struggle with assessing risk and security issues facing their respective organizations,” Wolf told Politico. “Others want to better understand the department, whether they’re regulated by the department, or perhaps they have technology or services to help the department better fulfill their mission.”

Wolf says he has a few clients already but declined to identify them. 

Wolf stepped down as acting secretary in January. 

MSNBC: ATF Must Be Empowered to Play Bigger Role in Combating Mass Shootings

By Steve Neavling

The mass shooting that left 10 people dead at a Colorado supermarket underscores why the ATF must become a bigger part of the solution, MSNBC columnist Hayes Brown argues.

Brown points out that the NRA has “systematically weakened ATF with the support of congressional Republicans.”

Brown writes:

“The restrictions have all focused on the bureau’s mandated tasks: issuing licenses for federal firearm licensees, which then have to use the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System when making sales; inspecting gun dealers for compliance with the law; and cracking down on illegal gun sales.

Those would be challenging enough, but ATF has to rely on a patchwork of laws to prevent illegal gun trafficking, since there’s no comprehensive federal law against gun trafficking. And as Berlow’s piece explained, over the years Congress has included a number of “riders,” or “bits of permanent law tacked onto an appropriations bill,” to the ATF’s funding.

Some of the most restrictive are the Tiahrt Amendments, which seem perfectly tailored to keep ATF small and ineffective. These riders block ATF from centralizing records it gets from licensed gun dealers, keep ATF from disclosing to anyone the contents of a federal database that tracks guns that authorities recover from crime scenes, make it illegal for ATF to require gun dealers to create a paper trail of how many guns they have in inventory and require the FBI to have a way to destroy any identifying information in a background check within 24 hours of clearing a gun sale.

These provisions can be undone only with an affirmative act of Congress. And don’t think about trying to transfer anything that ATF should be doing to another government body — there are riders blocking any funding for that, too. As things stand, ATF is so weak that it can’t even strip licenses from gun dealers effectively, even after multiple infractions.”

To read more, click here

FBI, ATF Help Investigate Mass Shooting in Colorado

Police respond to mass shooting in Boulder, Colo. (Photo via Boulder Police Department)

By Steve Neavling

The FBI and ATF are helping local police investigate a mass shooting that left 10 people dead at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, on Monday. 

The suspect was arrested outside the King Scoopers grocery market.

“There is no ongoing public threat,” Boulder Police Commander Kerry Yamaguchi said at a news conference, USA Today reports. “We do have a person of interest in custody. That person was injured during the incident and is being treated for the injuries.” 

Among those killed was a police officer, Eric Talley, an 11-year veteran on the Boulder force. 

“At the request of the Boulder Police Department, FBI Denver personnel are assisting with an investigation into an active shooter situation at a King Soopers grocery store on Table Mesa Drive in Boulder,” the bureau’s Denver office tweeted. 

Oops! Fox News Falsely Reports Homeland Security Director Resigns

Homeland Security Director Alejandro Mayorkas.

By Steve Neavling

Fox News host Harris Faulkner falsely reported Monday that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had resigned while she interviewing former President Trump. 

During the live broadcast, Faulkner interrupted Trump to tell him, “I want to double-check this with our producers: The DHS secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has resigned, Mr. President.”

Trump chimed in, “Well I’m not surprised. Good. That’s a big victory for our country.”

“Hold on, let me stop, let me listen to my team one more time,” the host said. “Forgive me, that has not happened. And I apologize.”

Trump responded, “OK, cross off that victory.”

Fox News was excoriated on social media. 

The Argument for Keeping J. Edgar Hoover’s Name on FBI HQ

By Greg Stejskal

The so called “cancel culture” movement has championed efforts to remove statues and the names of certain historical figures from public areas and buildings.

J. Edgar Hoover

I have never understood why military bases and schools are named for Confederate generals who took up arms against the United States to maintain the institution of slavery. I don’t think anyone ever proposed naming anything for Benedict Arnold.

But the movement has gone beyond Confederate generals. There is apparently strong support, including on Capitol Hill,  for removing J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Some of Hoover’s actions during his 48 years as director of the FBI are difficult to defend. It brings to mind, Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

The good that Hoover did was not interred with his bones. Upon his death in 1972, he lay in state in the Capitol rotunda, an unprecedented honor for a civil servant. When the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue was finally built in 1975, it was named for him.

From the time Hoover became director of the FBI in 1924, he built it into arguably the best investigative agency in the world. Hoover embraced forensic/scientific crime-fighting tools and established the FBI laboratory. He championed a national fingerprint repository and matched with the fingerprints, a repository of criminal records. This would become the National Crime Information Center.

The FBI developed a reputation for professionalism and incorruptibility that has seldom been breached. That incorruptibility was demonstrated in 1925, soon after Hoover became director, when he committed the bureau to investigate the Osage Indian murders in Oklahoma. The murders involved a conspiracy of community leaders, local and state officials, and the collusion of law enforcement. (The story is well-told in David Gann’s 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon.) Using undercover agents, the FBI identified and prosecuted many of those involved the conspiracy.

During Hoover’s tenure he directed the bureau to do some extralegal activities. Many of these initiatives were done at the request of various presidents under whom he served. Prior to World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Hoover to have the FBI monitor the activities of various isolationists, some of whom were German sympathizers, including Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin.

Hoover complied with the monitoring request. But when President Roosevelt was contemplating the detention of Japanese Americans, Hoover voiced his opposition to the detention, saying he did not believe they posed a threat to national security.

The author, Greg Stejskal

But the good that Hoover did seems to be largely forgotten or overshadowed by the bad acts that were committed by the bureau at his direction. Those bad acts principally involve the Counter Intelligence Program. COINTELPRO began in the mid-1950s by surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting the American Communist Party that acted as a surrogate of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin referred to American communists as “useful idiots.”

This was in the midst of the Cold War. To say that Hoover had an obsession regarding the threat of communism and the Soviet Union would be an understatement.

Hoover was privy to the Venona project, a secret counterintelligence operation begun by crypto analysts in the Army Signal Corps (forerunner of the National Security Agency) during WWII and for several years, thereafter. The analysts were able to decipher some of encrypted telegraph traffic between the Soviet embassy in the US and Moscow.

These communications revealed that Soviet intelligence officers operating in the U.S, had recruited numerous communists and communist sympathizers as spies or coopetes, people willing to help the Soviet Union.

It was the Venona that revealed that the Soviet Union had infiltrated the Manhattan Project which helped produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.

Investigation by the FBI and British intelligence led to the identification of British physicist, Klaus Fuchs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as spies. (Information from the Venona intercepts was never revealed at the Rosenberg trial.) The decrypted messages also indicated that a significant number of Americans in the government, entertainment and scientific research had been recruited by the Soviets.

Many of these recruits were never identified. Some were only identified after the fall of the Soviet Union. The existence of Venona and the deciphered messages was not declassified and revealed until the 1990s.

Monitoring Civil Rights Movement

Hoover and others involved in counterintelligence were understandably concerned about the possibility of Soviet influence in the media, entertainment and some political movements.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Under COINTELPRO, the FBI began to target some organizations within the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements that were believed to be influenced or controlled by the Soviet Union. There were people in leadership in these groups that were avowed communists. (Ironically, some of techniques that were used by the FBI were learned and honed successfully combating the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s ideology was more akin to the Nazis than the communists. In fact, the Klan was vehemently anti-communist.)

These targeted groups and leaders were monitored with electronic surveillance, wiretaps and hidden microphones. Robert Kennedy, attorney general from 1961-64, authorized electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and other principals in the civil rights movement ostensibly because of the possibility of Soviet influence. President John Kennedy was also aware of the bugging.

None of this justifies some of the egregious acts by the FBI at the direction of Hoover like threats of blackmail, false stories planted in the media, “black bag jobs” (burglaries). It does put COINTELPRO activity in context. There were national security concerns that at least in part explain why the groups were targeted, although the threat of Soviet influence in hindsight was exaggerated.

For all the good that Hoover did it’s hard to get past the bad things that were done to disrupt and discredit the civil rights movement, and specifically Martin Luther King Jr.  He’s been characterized by critics as racist, a trait that can’t be condoned by anyone.  

But COINTELPRO should not be Hoover’s legacy, nor should it be forgotten. His legacy should be the FBI – its successes, failures and transgressions.

Maybe we shouldn’t name anything for anyone. After all,  It’s said that not even the saints were saints.